Is TripAdvisor ruining travel?

Girls walking Alpaca in Cusco
Cusco, Peru, May 2017. Photo credit: Sari Stein

A couple of months ago, I was travelling in Peru. I’d just completed an absolutely magical trip to Machu Picchu, one of the world’s spectacular Great Wonders. It was a life-altering, breathtakingly beautiful, almost spiritual experience.

And the next day back in Cusco, waiting in my inbox was an email from the tour company: “Please, review us on TripAdvisor!”

Increasingly, businesses in the tourism industry live and die by their reviews. The word-of-mouth networks of yesteryear have been increasingly replaced by travellers on their smartphones, Googling a place to eat, sleep or visit in the vicinity.

Large hotel chains can survive on their global brand reputation and marketing. But for small independent restaurants, guesthouses, tour operators or guides, a “recommended by TripAdvisor” sticker on the door can mean the difference between survival and failure.

And do they ever know it.

A double-edged sword?

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this so far. Many small tourism businesses, especially in remote areas of developing countries, have limited marketing budgets or skills, internet access, or sometimes even electricity. A full-scale website and a robust SEM campaign is well out of their means. But they can overcome that with great reviews. And for us travellers, being able to check reviews are a matter of convenience, safety and confidence.

The problem is when it starts to go overboard. As much as it’s helping small operators, the “TripAdvisor Effect” is also hurting the travel industry in three big ways:

Solicitation overload

“Review us! Review us!” These days, everyone’s asking. Hotels and hostels, tour operators, local guides, restaurants… the volume of requests has gone up exponentially.

It used to be that I would get the occasional request and, if the service was good, I was generally happy to oblige. But on this trip, the requests numbered in the dozens per week. There’s simply no way I could keep up with them, at least, not without sacrificing my trip. I was in South America to travel, not to sit in a hostel common room writing reviews on my laptop.

I really do understand how important these reviews are to the local businesses asking for them. And, for the most part, I will try to oblige. But there’s a limit.

One tour operator in Peru, whose service had been good, sent me emails twice a day for two weeks. By the time I got home, I was so annoyed that I was almost tempted to leave him a negative review just for that. (I didn’t. He needs the good review more than I need to exercise petty vindictiveness. But I didn’t rush to leave him a positive one either. My enthusiasm had been dampened.)

Each company may only be asking once or twice. But, collectively. each traveller gets overwhelmed with requests. It’s gotten out of control.

Filtering or dishonesty?

Angry customers are 2-3 times more likely to leave a scathing review than satisfied customers are to leave a glowing one. That’s just human nature. It can take 12 good reviews to cancel out the effects of one bad one. And 80% of customers will choose to go elsewhere after leaving a bad review.

Tourist operators are so dependent on good reviews for their livelihood, that they have incredible amount of incentive to game the system as much as possible.

So how much can you really trust the reviews you read?

The practice of creating fake accounts to log in and leave good reviews for  one’s own business is so widespread in some parts of the world that sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor restrict accounts in those countries. The savvier operators get around those restrictions with VPNs and other creative solutions.

There are less nefarious, but equally problematic, practices that are hurting the credibility of reviews. Some companies send out a short satisfaction survey by email after every customer interaction. Only customers who leave a good review are invited to automatically publish it to social media sites; those who leave negative reviews are responded to privately. This is so widespread that there are platforms that will automate this process for you. It’s not technically against the terms of service of many sites — yet — but it does dance right on the edge of that line.

Ultimately, it’s hard to put too much trust in reviews — good or bad. I’ve been to top-rated places that felt decidedly average, and to mediocre-rated places that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with. As with most things related to travel, it’s often best to keep an open mind, go in with as few pre-conceived notions as possible, and form your own opinions.

The lost spirit of adventure

The last problem with sites like TripAdvisor is that they take the spontaneous spirit of discovery out of the travel experience.

I realize this one is deeply personal. And plenty of people will disagree with me. But hear me out:

Thanks to rating and review sites, it’s possible to plan a trip to almost anywhere these days and ensure that you’re always staying in the cleanest, most comfortable, centrally located hotels. That every restaurant meal is a culinary delight. That every tour you take is wonderful. That every attraction is worthwhile.

Just as Google Maps has prevented us from getting lost anymore, TripAdvisor prevents us from getting off course.

The thing is, getting lost and getting off course are central to the experience of travel. We go to new places not because they’re predictable, easy or great; we go there to discover the unexpected. Half the fun of travel is in the spontaneity.

Sure, sometimes you end up eating a terrible meal or sleeping in a roach-infested flophouse. But those are the experiences that make the trip. If everything’s five-star all the time, there’s no way to appreciate it.

Technology is neither good nor bad; it just is. With every bit of progress comes something lost. I’m not going to wax nostalgic about the era of steamship travel or anything. But I also have a sense that too much convenience turns independent travel into a sort of sanitized, Disneyfied experience.

Perhaps, with too many ratings and reviews, what is being lost is the reason we set out on the road in the first place. And wouldn’t that be a shame?